Robots and A.I.s have recently been the subject for quite a few movies, particularly in relationship to the concept of the Singularity, the idea that technology will become self-evolving. The Machine, Ex Machina, Her, Transcendence… even the Avengers have got in on the action with Age of Ultron. Automata is the latest film to throw its hat into the ring, with another tale of robots becoming far more than they were programmed to be. Unfortunately, that’s part of the film’s problem; it’s just another title of this sort, and there’s not a whole lot to set it apart.
The 2040s; solar flares have ravaged the world, causing massive ecological collapse and a plunge in the world’s population. Robots called Pilgrims have become common in efforts to hold back the end, and are fairly common in most labour activities. Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) is an insurance investigator with ROC, the Pilgrims’ manufacturer, whose latest case is an interesting one; a unit that’s had unauthorised modifications to it. The odd thing is that it looks like the robot tried to make these alterations itself, which given the programming it shouldn’t have been able to do. When he encounters another one that actually tries to commit suicide to prevent itself from being interrogated, it really seems that some have had a major change in programming. But who’s done it, why, and what is the final goal?
The main plus to this film is in its visuals. The whole thing has a strong near future aesthetic, a mix of the ultramodern, and some more crude elements, giving the feel of a society having to make do with not much. The Pilgrims in particular are an excellent piece of work, having the sort of simple, distinct look of say something designed by Apple, but with an old, used look, as though they have been put through their paces for a while. They are actually bought to life in a nice mix of CGI and prop-work, making them seem very real, with a movement very much like real life prototype robots akin to Asimo. So in terms of mood and aesthetic, it’s all very slick for a budget of only about $7million.
The problem is that, while it does engage in some interesting ideas and has a good style, the fact is that the story is just plain insubstantial. There’s very little to the story that hasn’t been done before in more than a few similar tales, with the protocols of the Pilgrims being very similar to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws. There are very few actual surprises to the story, nothing to make this tale stand out. What’s more, many of the final reveals are somewhat vague and unsatisfying; we find robots becoming independent, willing to evolve, but we don’t get a proper answer as to what they ultimately want, what it’s all for. As for the way some characters react to all this, the main antagonists ROC’s motivations are pretty vague too, going from nought to evil in barely any time at all. In fact, all the characters are pretty vague; it’s a full veteran cast including Tim McInnery and Javier Bardem, but the script gives them very little to work with. The biggest issue though is the pacing, which for a film mainly set in a desert climate can only be ironically described as glacial. So little happens in the film, it feels far longer than its run time, and there’s little to make the journey worth it.
With a bit of editing, there’s about enough story and style here for an average episode of The Outer Limits, but stretched out this thin, it makes things just a slog to get through. It’s a shame, as there’s some real talent and strong visuals on display here, it just needs some actual meat to the story. Also, with this ground trod by so many others before, there’s little unique to it, which given the stylish stories of Ex Machina and the others is a real problem. Automata is a sci-fi story on autopilot.